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Putin announces plan to pardon for Khodorkovsky, Pussy Riot

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he will pardon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil tycoon who has been imprisoned for a decade. The unexpected move came during an annual Putin press conference.

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Putin to pardon Khodorkovsky

Speaking at the end of a press conference broadcast live across Russia on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin made the surprise announcement that he would pardon jailed oil tycoon,

Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Khodorkovsky, 50, has "spent more than 10 years in prison. It's a serious term," Putin said, adding that he would grant the pardon "in the nearest time." Putin said Khodorkovsky had submitted a formal request.

The Russian oligarch was jailed for tax fraud and embezzlement and had been seen as a potential political rival for Putin. At the time of his arrest he was Russia's richest man with an estimated wealth of $8 billion (5.85 billion euros).

The president's announcement followed confirmation from Putin that the members of the band Pussy Riot and 28 Greenpeace activists detained this year would be granted amnesty under a

bill passed by Russia's parliament on Wednesday.

The Russian president was also expected to answer questions about his government's human rights records. The international community has voiced concerns over Russia's treatment of government critics and legislation

banning the promotion of 'homosexual propaganda.'

Scrutiny on the practices has increased ahead of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.

Defense of Ukraine deal

During his annual question and answer session with the Russian press, Putin discussed a number of recent topics that have occupied both the domestic and international media, beginning with Ukraine.

Putin explained Moscow's position on recent relations with Ukraine. The Ukrainian government is currently working to end

mass protests calling for the resignation of President Viktor Yanukovych

following his decision to shelve trade talks with the European Union.

Early speculation attributed the move to his fear of angering Moscow, Ukraine's closest trade partner.

Earlier this week, Putin agreed to

extend a loan worth 11 billion euros ($15 billion) to Kyiv.

He defended the move on Thursday as an appropriate negotiation with such a close neighbor.

"We see that Ukraine is in difficult straits ... if we really say that they are a brotherly nation and people, then we must act like close relatives and help this nation," Putin told reporters on Thursday.

"In no way is this connected with the [protests in Kyiv] or the European talks with Ukraine," he added.

Under the agreement, Kyiv also had its bill for Russian gas imports temporarily cut by one-third.

Yanukovych's agreement with Moscow

only fuelled demonstrations more, even though neither of the leaders discussed the possibility of Ukraine entering into a Russian-led customs union. Protesters - already worried that such a trade bloc would resemble the Soviet Union - have been demanding details about the terms of the latest deal.

Yanukovych's refusal to acquiesce to protesters' demands, as well as his government's use of police force during several demonstrations, has drawn sharp international criticism. Both EU and US leaders have visited Kyiv in an attempt to influence Yanukovych and have defended pro-EU demonstrators. Meanwhile, Russia has characterized the uproar as disproportionate to the current situation.

Putin dismisses missile report

The Russian president also addressed concern over

the reported deployment of Iskander missiles to its exclave region of Kaliningrad

, which borders NATO and EU members Poland and Lithuania.

Putin said the Russian military could counter US influence in the region with the nuclear-capable missiles, but the he wanted to draw attention "to the fact that such a decision has not yet been taken."

The advanced version of the Iskander missile has a range of 500 kilometers (310 miles. It is nuclear-capable, and could also potentially be used to destroy ground-based radar and interceptors of the new NATO shield.

Russia first flagged the idea of putting Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad two years ago, in response to an anti-missile shield the US and NATO are building in Europe. They both insist it is not meant as protection from Russia, but as from potential threats from so-called "rogue states to the West.

Snowden and the NSA

Reporters also asked Putin about Edward Snowden, the NSA-whistleblower whom Moscow granted temporary asylum this year.

Putin reiterated the terms of the asylum, namely that Snowden could not continue leaking information about the US surveillance program.

The Russian president also offered defense of the electronic eavesdropping program, which has alarmed Americans and allied nations across the globe, saying it wasn't a "cause for joy, but not a cause for repentence either." It served an important role in the fight against terrorism, but must follow regulations, he added.

The comments came a day after a review panel in the US submitted a list of

46 recommendations to US President Barack Obama

aimed at overhauling the controversial program and safeguarding the right of its allies to privacy.

kms/jr (AP, AFP, Reuters)

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